Faculty Forum - Featured Post Posted on Friday, August 26, 2016

The Intersections of Race and Poverty in the United States: Some Ethnographic Notes

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of August 2016, the 41st precinct in the South Bronx hosted a summer barbecue. My family and I live only a few blocks away, but I didn’t know about the party ahead of time. When my children and I came out of the subway station on Longwood Avenue that day, it was already 6:00 pm. I had no desire to extend an already long day further. I also did not want to support a precinct that to me seemed to take a hands-off approach to drug dealing on the nearby playground, while vigilant in writing parking tickets. My children, however, had different plans. They insisted on going across the street just for a few minutes. I tried very hard to dislike the event. Despite my skepticism, I had to admit that the officers naturally and happily mingled with their neighbors. Everybody was smiling.  Children were dancing to salsa music and waving around the free balloon animals they had scored. The scene was the exact opposite of what the press has portrayed as an antagonistic, if not hostile, relationship between the police and the minority neighborhoods they serve.

My research focuses on crime and urban poverty, yet policing has only played a marginal role in my work. As a white woman, I have been able to avoid the kind of police interactions that often occur in the poor urban neighborhoods in which I conduct fieldwork. Although the African-American and Latino teenagers that I have spoken to in the course of my research for my first book, A Dream Denied, mentioned being harassed by the police, their narratives did not focus exclusively on police encounters.

For my second book, tentatively titled, Lost Childhoods, I interviewed 30 prison inmates in Central Pennsylvania during the spring and fall of 2014. The young respondents that I met repeatedly over the course of four months did not dwell on their past police interactions. The preliminary data analysis reveals that they take police violence or police harassment for granted. To them, it is a fundamental part of being involved in street life. Many of the young men have experienced a high level of street – and domestic – violence from early childhood on. Police brutality was only one of many ways they had been victimized. As I quickly discovered, poverty was at the root of all forms of victimization.

The 30 young inmates that participated in my study came of age amidst a toxic mix of racial discrimination and extreme poverty. All of them were born in the mid-1990s. Unlike their parents, they did not have the benefit of a comprehensive welfare system as a result of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton 20 years ago this month. As they were coming of age, the criminal justice system was the only government entity that had maintained a constant presence in their communities.

One of my interviewees, Luis, is a case study about how an upbringing of poverty shapes future life outcomes. On a September afternoon in 2010, Luis’ friend dropped him off  a few blocks away from the local M&T bank. Luis walked into the bank and dropped a blue backpack at the front door. In his hand he held something vaguely looking like a detonator. He told the bank tellers that the backpack contained a bomb. He would pull the trigger if they didn’t give him money.

There was not a bomb in the backpack, and the money he received had a GPS tracking device attached to it. Luis was arrested almost as soon as he left the bank. When the police stopped him, Luis didn’t run. At the precinct he told the officers who questioned him that he was homeless and unemployed. He felt he had nothing to lose.

By the time Luis decided to rob the bank, his life had been a string of parental abandonment, abuse, educational failure, and self-destructive choices. While there is not a direct line that leads from Luis’s childhood to him threatening to blow up a bank,  his pathway into crime cannot be understood independently from his upbringing. Luis remembers that he was 11 years-old when he became homeless for the first time. He and his stepfather didn’t get along. Luis claims he tried to prevent his stepfather from hitting his mother, and as Luis puts it, she “ended up choosing my stepfather over me.” His mother threw him out of the house and after spending a few nights in the park, his older brother found him and allowed him to stay with him. From then on he started moving around between his multiple siblings, his biological father and his aunt.

When Luis was a teenager his grandmother disclosed that her daughter – Luis’s mother – had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. In the light of this diagnosis, his mother’s erratic behavior began to make sense.  She “just blacked out and she started hitting me in the face with her wedding ring. Smashed me in the face and I was probably about 13, 12 when this was happening”, he recalls. She went from throwing things at him to apologizing for not having taken her medication within moments.

The extended kin network Luis relied on was far from supportive and stable. A stark difference from the social networks Carol Stack observed 40 years ago in a poor African American community, the kinship ties Luis relied on could hardly withstand the structural pressure poverty exerts on families in the absence of meaningful government assistance. The ties Luis had to his siblings, aunt, or grandmother did not make up for the broken tie to his mother and his drug-addicted father. For his extended kinship network, he was another mouth to feed. When things became tight financially, he was the first one who had to leave. As Luis’ story shows, an impoverished upbringing encourages unlawful behavior, which means that individuals from impoverished backgrounds are likely to have numerous encounters with law enforcement – often, as we have seen throughout this series, in negative ways.

As has been discussed at length in other media outlets, the ways in which the U.S. approaches policing is deeply flawed. Smart phones have documented police violence in spectacular ways. Those images provide an easily digestible narrative of good and evil. The many different ways in which deep-seated poverty is brutalizing poor communities, on the other hand, continues to be absent from the headlines. While it is too early to draw firm conclusions from these data, even a cursory analysis demonstrates that comprehensive criminal justice reform has to take into account the deep-seated poverty and social dislocation impacting poor communities. While policing may be the most visible problem that plagues those located at the very bottom of social hierarchy, it is not – at least in the minds of the young men I observed and interviewed – the most pressing one.

Further Reading:

Edin, Kathryn and Luke Shaefer (2015). $ 2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Desmond, Matt. 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Random House: New York.

Wilson, William Julius. 2009. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. New York: Norton.

This post appears as part of a Roosevelt House series on race and law enforcement. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Michaela Soyer is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Hunter College.  Her book “A Dream Denied” — Incarceration, Recidivism and Young Minority Men” has recently been published by the University of California Press. Currently Michaela is engaged in data collection for several collaborative mixed method projects about inmate networks and their significance for reentry and recidivism. Her second book, tentatively titled “Lost Childhoods”  is based on in-depth interviews with 30 juveniles adjudicated as adults and their families. Relying on this interview data she seeks to understand the young men’s pathways into crime, the negative turning points they experienced as teenagers as well as the role childhood trauma and extreme deprivation played in their criminal career.